Like most abusive relationships, horror films and religion rarely show their true colors toward each other while guests are around. Don’t be fooled. Beneath their simplistic veneer are complex associations culminating in a macabre maelstrom of give and take – love and hate. They are in constant collision with one another; all the better to hide their forbidden embrace.
When considering horror from the pulpit’s perspective, one can’t help but conjure the wagging finger of condemnation declaring these insidious films as blasphemy. It is true the horror film exist to push boundaries and delve into the forbidden, two things that religion hates. These films show you the human as meat. Images of sadistic bloodshed are splattered across most of their frames combined with rampant explicit sexuality. Resist the temptations! The wagging finger commands you! Horror shows a side of human nature often suppressed by spiritual thinking. While theologians usually delight in elevating the individual from just another animal into a sacred child of the almighty, horror nihilistically keeps the individual down in the muck, usually by depicting a decapitation or two or the murder of innocence, that sort of thing. Wonderfully tasteless films like Friday the 13th, The Hills Have Eyes and even modern classics like Saw or Martyrs seem to celebrate the measurable earthly limits we find ourselves in. They don’t pretend you live forever, they don’t pretend your body wont rot into nothing and they certainly don’t pretend it wont hurt. Perhaps blasphemous is the right word after all. These materialist notions form a full-fledged attack on the human spirit as defined by religion. Yet, when we move beyond a surface level critique, we find that morality gives religion and horror a level ground for them to kiss and makeup… or make out… feverishly.
There has been much written regarding the strong moral compass of the slasher film subgenre and most of those refer to Friday the 13th. We’ve all heard the list: you have premarital sex and you die, you do drugs and you die, you are mean and make bad decisions and you die. Now, reread the list only this time replace the word “die” with the phrase “go to hell”. We begin to see some common interests starting to emerge. Is it just me or did this date suddenly take a turn for the better? Perhaps a flirtatious eye from horror coupled with some wondering hands from religion. Watch it you two, or you’ll end up just like one of those hormonal teens at Camp Crystal Lake.
The truth is religion has utilized horror stories to push its ideology from the moment of its birth. The threat of hells everlasting fire does more than get people’s attention, it makes them complacent in fear. Do you want to burn in hell forever? No, then listen up. Do you want Jason to split you down the center with his machete? I didn’t think so, so keep it in your pants. Most people would find the story of the crucifixion to be fairly grotesque, just ask anyone who has seen Passion of the Christ. Matching that grotesquery, in Friday The 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter, Crispin Glover is nailed by his palms to a doorframe in true crucifix fashion – sadly there was no resurrection for him. Nothing controls like terror does, as religion can attest to. So, although the extreme shock of most slashers can be considered offensive, religion should find the morals and the approach in implementing them quite agreeable.
What of horror films that are overtly religious? Classics like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Sentinel and even Rosemary’s Baby all utilize religion and, despite their unwarranted reputations, actually show religion in a positive light. Speaking plainly, religion should rejoice in any film that promotes the existence of god, which is the inevitable byproduct of having Satan as your villain. The Omen depicts the birth of the antichrist so successfully that it’s praised in some circles for scaring people back into church. Holly water wouldn’t have burnt Regan’s flesh in The Exorcist if god were not the all-powerful force of good in the universe. On that same note, any vampire film in the past century that uses the cross to ward off the undead is equally guilty of indirectly professing the power of god. As Chris Sarandon exclaims in the 80s classic Fright Night when being threatened by the image of a crucifix, “You have to have faith for this to work on me, Mr. Vincent.”
Pro-religious sentiments are still alive and well in contemporary tales of supernatural horror. They can be found in countless modern films such as The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, The Prophecy, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Stigmata just to name a few. They rejoice in the exploitation of Christian theology, though, there have been some films, such as The Possession or The Unborn, which stray into other religions. One might even consider The Craft a religious horror film if we are to be fair to the definition. If Catholics can have little girls with spinning heads, then god help us, so can Jews and Wiccans. Even if the film ends with the forces of evil triumphantly defeating the forces of good, these kinds of films still bare the positive admittance that there is at least a force of supernatural goodness to begin with.
So, the question beckons: are these horror films feeding religious hysteria? They seem to only work on the assumption that their audience is already a devout believer. In that sense, the task becomes that of frightful reinforcement. After all, in none of these cases does religion pose the problem. On the contrary, it is almost always the solution. Usually a logical scientific explanation is pursued, but proves not only inadequate, but also arrogant and ignorant to boot. The end of each film puts rational thought in its place, as it is thoroughly outmatched by religion’s ability to understand the irrational laws of a higher power.
Perhaps the picture of horror and religion as happy bedfellows is oversimplifying the matter. Of course there are horror films where the tyrannical religious fanatic is depicted as a monster. Immediately the image of Carrie White being dragged into the closet and forced to pray comes to mind. But, that’s too easy. To find where horror takes its best digs at religion, we have to look deeper and understand what makes horror so powerful.
If horror aims to horrify, then by definition it is naturally repulsive. How then, in something built to be abhorrent, can a filmmaker infuse some substance without it being completely rejected by the audience? The answer is through a sneaky little trick we will to refer to as The Malicious Metaphor. It is a technique used to force the audience into viewing something as wicked that they wouldn’t normally. In this case, it happens to be religion. It becomes an especially hard trick when dealing with a subject as sensitive as this one. But bathed in blood and terror, as we have learned, people are willing to accept almost anything.
The terror of belief is a common theme in more than a few horror films and when broken down can be revealed as a direct attack on religion (or rather a warning). John Carpenter’s horribly underrated love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness depicts a man tormented by inexplicable religious belief. The world becomes convinced that a series of pulp horror novels are not actually a work of fiction at all, and that the deranged monsters contained in their pages are as real as you or me. People’s blind faith in words condemn the world into a nightmare born into waking life. In this case, the malicious metaphor is fairly obvious, as even a character in the film states, “More people believe in my work then believe in the bible.” Suddenly, faith is no virtue; it has become a powerfully destructive force. Assuming the metaphor disarms you of whatever reservations you might have, you accept blind faith as a wicked endeavor, despite your possible religious conviction.
Likewise, in the film Candyman, desperate religious faith takes center stage as the boogeyman behind the mirror. In this eloquent film about a bloody hook-handed urban legend being ushered into reality, the malicious metaphor is ever more intricate. The criticism of religion can be nailed down when you identify The Candyman for what he really is. He is not just a sorrowful ghost with a hook for a hand; he is in fact the entity brought forth by fanatic belief. Framing religion in this way – a living, breathing entity – one starts to see truth in this terrifying vision. What happens when you threaten the life of another living thing? It fights back, usually violently. You can see the same vicious animalistic reaction when someone’s religion is seriously threatened. Religion will fight to the bitter end in order to defend itself. Immeasurable blood has been spilled in the name of arguably absent gods. The blame for this therefore must lie not on the “gods” but on the belief itself. As Candyman explains to his victim, “You destroyed the faith of my congregation, so I was obliged to come.” His very existence depends on his congregation’s unflinching devotion.
The film doesn’t stop there, it goes on to theories what makes religion behave like an animal. Assuming religion was made by animals, and assuming that undertaking was not a pointless endeavor, one can conclude that religion must therefore be intrinsically linked to the animal’s survival. But what makes it so important? As the lead heroine in Candyman played by Virgina Madsen states, “People start attributing the daily horror of their lives to a mythical figure.” If that figure didn’t exist, then who could be blamed for all the terrible things in life? What would it mean when the young die? What would it matter when the innocent suffer? These shaking questions are posed, but not answered. Some people find the troubling notion that we are ultimately alone more chilling than any murderous ghost. This dangerous dance with nihilism is precisely the reason why the Candyman is kept alive by the public’s unshakable faith. Taking it a step further, this is also the reason why Candyman is compelled to kill. As a criticism of religion, you don’t get much more brutal than this. The film shows us the devastating cost of hiding your existential fears inside a fairytale. If you choose to leave life’s hard questions up to a mythical figure, then don’t be surprised when it appears behind you in the mirror with a bloody hook hungry for a fresh evisceration.
These are just two (albeit juicy) examples of when horror really gives religion the backhand. One could go on and on discussing the religious undertones of A Nightmare On Elm Street or the religious overtones of Hellraiser, but lets be honest, you do not have to strain your eyes too hard to find blasphemy in a film entitled HELLraiser.
Once upon a time, religion took it upon itself to define the standard for a decent, wholesome lifestyle. There is no denying this definition of decency had a huge influence on cinema censorship. It wasn’t that long ago when the Catholic Church still had the power (not to mention the audacity) to condemn films they judged unacceptable. Many of these films were indeed of the horrific persuasion. During this period, it is clear the church had forgotten the many horror tales saturating their own holy text. After all, if Jesus really did rise from the grave, then he was a zombie and Bella Lugosi was certainly his master.
Religion and horror… They hate each other. They love each other. They’re abusive, yet gentle. They mutually feast on the other’s flesh then apologetically bind the wounds. However, to say they need one another is not quite accurate considering they hasten each other’s demise. One upholds the boundaries of self defined decency and the other explores the forbidden areas beyond said boundaries. If only one can survive, I know which one I’m rooting for.
“To a new world of gods and monsters.” – Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
This article was first posted on July 2, 2013